Before there was the viral video, before the Internet meme, before the Tweet and ReTweet, the Huffington Post and the Colbert Bump, there was The Onion headline.
(You remember headlines, right? They’re like Tweets, only way fewer than 140 characters.)
The Onion headline, now shorthand for the outrageous (and steeped in, but not actually containing, truth) news story, was born out of The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, once just a satirical newspaper in a Midwestern college town.
(You remember newspapers, right? It’s like a blog, only not as timely and with fewer pictures of cats.)
And that newspaper, for several years until it became the comedy-brand behemoth it is today, started life in Madison, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin.
And I was there.
OK, I wasn’t there to witness the birth, but I feel as if we grew up together. I started school in 1990, just when the two-year-old Onion was carving its niche as the Funniest. Thing. Ever. With headlines like “Vilas Hall Tipped On Side” (subhed: “There aren’t any fucking doors, freshmen say” only for real the paper used letters and not asterisks), The Onion was a campus-wide inside joke, making even us newbies feel like part of the cool kids. (See, Vilas Hall, where journalism, theater and film classes are held, is a foreboding, Vietnam War-era building that, upon first glance, does not reveal its doors. You won’t find them on second glance, either. Even finding a door doesn’t guarantee you’ll get to the right classroom; not all hallways, stairways or elevators reached all areas of the building.)
Once I discovered The Onion – and, believe me, in those early years it was not a given that every campus building or local business would have them – my Tuesday ritual was set: grab an Onion, get to class, begin laughing. It was easy, too – the genius of those early days was not only that the headline was the punchline, but often, it was the only thing. It took a while for the paper to be stuffed full of full-length stuff: The main story might have enough meat for the front page, but the copy on the jump, if there was one, was just dummy text; something about buckets of blood and gasping in horror.
(Later, when I had more time, I’d assess the coupons; the two-for-one burgers at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry was a huge get and would result in that week’s stacks of papers getting ransacked and tossed aside like so many empty cups on a frat house basement floor.)
Paging through The Onion was the highlight of the week, for sure. It was part of conversation everywhere – “Did you read that Onion article this week?” “Awesome horoscopes this week!” “How hilarious were those news briefs?” – and essential reading for the pithiest – and legitimate – movie and music reviews. That it was all about us – Madison, the UW campus, even the state – made it a point of pride. The “Who’s Busted” column was a transcription of the campus police blotter; the Drunk of the Week picture captured more than a handful of acquaintances. The heavily Photoshopped photos often included people I recognized; the UPS delivery guy in the State Street area was a part of the standing man-on-the-street feature for several issues, and the photo staff never had to travel far to illustrate religious stories because, as one of the editors told me, there are a lot of people in Madison who look like Jesus.
And the dry sense of ironic detachment laced with so much seriousness and truth in headlines like “Rooftop Sniper Held Over For Third Explosive Week!” (subhed: “Homicidal gunman brings excitement to small town”) and “Waterworld Reviewer Uses Pun” appealed to me not only as a writer but also as a nascent cynic.
When I figured out what I wanted to do with my life (journalism, go figure), I felt I had to pay more attention to the campus’s real newspapers, the Badger Herald and the Daily Cardinal, instead of The Onion. I took it personally when I’d look around my classrooms and lecture halls and see the front page of the Onion instead of the Cardinal.
And then things like this happened: During the 1992 presidential campaign season, when candidates were dropping in on Madison left and right (but mostly left), someone in the crowd during one of Jerry Brown’s visits held up that week’s Onion. The headline: “Dan Quayle Poops On Floor.”
(You remember Dan Quayle, right? He was veep to the first President Bush, and he wasn’t known for his brainpower. I’ll wait while you Google “Dan Quayle” and “potato.”)
Had I been paying attention, I might have noticed how those early days of The Onion were a strange predictor of times to come. We at the legit media on campus worked like dogs to publish a paper so scarce with ads that some days we were an embarrassing four pages. (Or, as The Onion pointed out in a special edition dedicated to ridiculing our product, four pages is just one page folded in half.) The Onion, on the other hand, was substantial, almost hefty by comparison. What was true then still holds today: People – lots of people – will read (or watch or listen to) “news” that isn’t even remotely true. (See: FOX News.)
Now, with its print product on death row, The Onion has become a victim of its own success: The website, the YouTube clips, the Twitter feed and the rest of its comedy tentacles have rendered its original form – the very origin of The Onion headline – obsolete. Who wants to have to rustle up a paper copy to read of the latest activities of Area Man when news of them comes right to you? In my day, we had to work for our satirical gut-busters; nowadays, comedy will literally punch you in the gut.
(OK, not literally, not unless you have your smartphone set to violently vibrate and you’re carrying it in a fanny pack that’s situated right on your belly. Then, literally.)
When The Onion pulled off a USA Today-like makeover in the mid-1990s – full color, newsgraphics, national circulation; headline on the first issue: “Mount Rushmore Adorned With Neon Sign” – a little part of me died. Gone were the inside-joke headlines, gone were the police reports, gone was that struggling-artist feeling. We grew apart after that, The Onion and I, but I kept in touch when it popped up on the Interwebs, and we had a brief fling when I returned to Madison on the occasional visits to campus. I could see the years had taken their toll; diversification had mainstreamed the satire slightly, and not every entry was a winner.
But every so often, I’d come across something like “Kitten Thinks Of Nothing But Murder All Day” or “Area Man Buying Not So Much A Soft Drink As An Image” that was still laugh-out-loud, lose-bladder-control, funny-’cause-it’s-true hilarious, and I’d remember when it was just me (and 40,000 or so others) and The Onion. That was something special, and that’ll always be mine.
In the end, that’s all that matters.
That, and the hope that someday, somewhere, someone might come across that early ’90s issue of The Onion that featured the former vice president and, believing its front-page claim of Number One In News, adds a footnote in the history e-books.
EDITOR’s NOTE: The first time I heard about The Onion was thanks to Rogers, with whom I worked at The Times-News in Twin Falls, ID. She brought copies of the fake newspaper from Madison into our very real Idaho newsroom. Because the World Wide Web didn’t include Idaho then. On Nov. 8, 2013, Onion Inc. President Mike McAvoy announced in an interview, and subsequent statements, that The Onion would cease all print publication with its Dec. 12, 2013, issue.